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Sun King cross-dressing brother steps out of shadows

TV series was right – there was more to Philippe, Duke of Orléans, than historians once believed Dr Jonathan Spangler tells Scheenagh Harrington

The final series of the lavish period drama Versailles, currently showing on BBC Two after been screened in France on Canal Plus, offers a glimpse at the antics of bed-hopping, power-hungry French monarch Louis XIV – but also shows the life of his younger brother, Philippe Duke of Orléans.

Brought to life in the Franco-Canadian series by Welsh actor Alexander Vlahos, Philippe is portrayed as a scheming, sexually voracious and ambitious member of his brother’s court.

Born in 1640, Philippe was the second son of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria, and inherited the title of ‘fils de France’, while his elder brother Louis became dauphin.

He was raised at court in a claustrophobic atmosphere, thanks to his mother, who was regent until Louis came of age and, in 1648, was the one who placed the crown on his brother’s head at the coronation.

Philippe was soon flexing his own political muscles and grew into a more-than adept leader, distinguishing himself in the 1677 Battle of Cassel against William III, Prince of Orange.

Years later, he championed the arts, supporting the likes of Molière and assembling an internationally important art collection.

He died on 9 June, 1701, following a stroke. The previous evening he had argued with, and dined alongside, his brother. Upon hearing of Philippe’s death, Louis is reported to have said: “I cannot believe I will never see my brother again”. 

While Versailles the series does not pretend to be anything more than sumptuous, soapy, entertainment, it does reflect history – and Philippe’s story is worth bringing out from under the Sun King’s glare.

Researchers behind the series did their homework when it came to portraying Philippe, according to Dr Jonathan Spangler, senior lecturer in History at Manchester Metropolitan University and editor-in-chief of The Court Historian. He said: “In terms of supporting his older brother morally, and displaying a good sense of military strategy and taste, the depiction is spot on.

“Although Louis XIV was unquestionably the senior brother, he and Philippe did often act as a pair – they were raised together, both with the firm knowledge and confidence of their royal status.

“Many of the sources of the period, however, do make Philippe out to be a bit more priggish and selfish, and certainly more rigidly pious, at least in his younger days, so I think the character has been made more likeable.

In 1658, the teenage Philippe came within touching distance of the throne when Louis almost died with what was later believed to be typhoid.

Dr Spangler said: “Philippe had to be ready to rule in case Louis, or his son the Dauphin died. But he was in an impossible situation, because although he was expected to act princely, if he showed too many signs of independence or ambition, he could be seen as a threat.”

It is impossible to know how hard Philippe had to work to step out of his brother’s shadow, but it seems he was well-liked in general. “Most sources for the period are either written by courtiers, diplomats or politicians, and much that was printed for the public’s consumption was official propaganda,” said Dr Spangler.

“But we have reports of Philippe travelling in the countryside distributing coins, and being loudly cheered.

“He was popular with women at court, though diplomats seemed to view him as a caricature – lots of make-up, ribbons, high-heel shoes.”

When it came to the battlefield, he grabbed his chance to succeed on his own terms, and the jealousy depicted in the TV version of Versailles once again appears to be rooted in truth.

Dr Spangler said: “Philippe was never again given a command after Cassel in 1677.”

Forced to hang up his sword, Philippe turned his focus to revamping his residences, notably the Palais Royal and his country retreat, Château de Saint-Cloud, whose Grand Cascade still stands to this day.

Dr Spangler said: “As he got older, Philippe became more popular with the people of Paris because he continued the royal family’s patronage of the theatre at the Palais Royal, while Louis XIV focused on piety and on Versailles, never deigning to visit Paris at all.

“By the time Philippe died, the focus was on Louis XIV’s grandsons as the royals of the future, and he was forgotten.”

His legacy as a patron of the arts may have been degraded by time, said Dr Spangler, but it has been successfully revived.

“For centuries, he was just known as the buffoon: the cross-dresser, the sexually deviant brother of the glorious Sun King. Biographers from the earlier part of the 20th century described him as weak, vicious, petty, depraved, sad, an embarrassment. 

“Only in the later 20th century have they started to look beyond the façade of the homosexual caricature, to see him as an astute businessman.”

The family managed to survive arguably the most turbulent period in French history, as Dr Spangler said: “Their Paris residence, the Palais Royal, became an important meeting place for dissenters in the years leading up to the French Revolution, when Louis-Philippe, fifth duc d’Orléans voted in favour of executing the King.

“His son, Louis-Philippe, the sixth duc d’Orléans, continued to lead the liberal branch of the monarchical party after the Restoration of 1815, and was brought to power as ‘King of the French’ in the July Revolution of 1830.”

Philippe has become known as the ‘grandfather of Europe’ as, thanks to a series of dazzling marriages made for his daughters, his bloodline entered the royal families of Austria and Spain, before spreading to all the Catholic dynasties of Europe.

When the main line of the Bourbons became extinct in 1883, the rightful heirs to the throne in France became the house of Orléans, and while his descendants have spread far and wide, the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, excluded foreign branches of the House of Orléans from ascending the throne, ensuring only descendants from the France-based line could ever rule. The current claimant is 84-year-old Henri d’Orléans, Count of Paris, Duke of France, who is regarded by French royalists as the rightful heir of Henri de Bourbon, Count of Chambord, and the last patrilineal descendant of King Louis XIII. His heir is Prince Jean of Orléans, Duke of Vendôme.

It would be interesting to know if Philippe would have been mortified by the ruffled feathers when in 1984, a then 50-year-old Henri divorced his first wife, Duchess Marie Thérèse of Württemberg, and married Micaëla Anna María Cousiño y Quiñones de León a few months later – without the formal consent of his father.

It took years for the family tensions to subside but, in 1991, eight years before his death, the old Count of Paris reinstated Henri to the position of heir apparent and the title of Count of Clermont.

Bringing Philippe to life was so much fun!

Did you do any research before taking on the role of Philippe?

I did very little! I had what the showrunners outlined and took it from there. I’m not from that school of acting where burying oneself in a history book is going to inform my acting.

For me, the script is the bible – doing lots of research into Philippe didn’t add anything.

Was there a lot of pressure to be historically accurate?

Of course, there’s a lot of pressure to be accurate. But that again doesn’t fall necessarily under the acting remit. You hope that every department, especially the writing and directing have done their homework.

The joy with Philippe is that so very few books are written about him that I almost, especially in season one, got free reign to make bold choices and hope that the audiences bought it. Thankfully they did!

How much fun was he to play, given his exploits, in and out of court?

So much fun! But, also incredibly draining. Philippe has matured a considerable amount over the 30 hours of drama. It’s been one of the best parts and best jobs I’ve ever had.

To what extent did the costumes and sets help your performance?

It certainly helps. It gives you the platform to go off and concentrate on the words. It sets the emotion.

Did playing Philippe leave a lasting impression, and given the chance, would you consider a return to Versailles?

Versailles, Philippe and France are now buried a long long place away, in the best possible sense. I’ve loved him but now it’s time to move on... 

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